Groups hope DNA analyses will aid poaching cases

The explosion of CSI-minded television shows not only has viewers up to speed on the roles of cutting-edge science in criminal investigations, it also has Oregon jurors questioning just how thoroughly police handle wildlife poaching cases.

"We find from all those TV shows that jurors know two things," says Capt. Walt Markee, who heads the Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Enforcement Program. "They expect us to solve a case in one hour, and they expect DNA."

Good wildlife investigations will never take an hour, but a collection of sport-hunting groups are giving the OSP's wildlife troopers a chance at better enforcement through genetics.

The groups are funding a two-year, $25,000 experiment to conduct DNA analyses in certain wildlife cases through Idaho's wildlife forensics lab. The plan is to determine whether adding more tests to the law-enforcement arsenal will be helpful in court — and perhaps be a deterrent in the field.

"It's becoming harder and harder to convict people in court without it," Markee says. "We've made cases on circumstantial evidence before. But technology can save us money, time and make us more efficient."

The largest contributor to the program is the Medford-based Oregon Hunters Association, whose parent group and local chapters pledged $17,800 for the program.

The money will cover field training of troopers on how to collect and process DNA material for testing. The tests will be conducted at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, which has its own forensics lab.

Already the Idaho lab has done two pro-bono tests, and both positive results helped investigations, Markee says.

One case linked a Klamath Falls man to a wasted Rocky Mountain elk, and another linked a bear hide found at a taxidermist to a gut pile near an illegal bait station, Markee says. Both cases were in the Prineville area, he says.

The OSP has a crime lab, but it handles human, not wildlife, cases. Troopers used to get occasional DNA tests through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services' National Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, but workloads on federal and international cases there leave little time for state assistance.

The OSP in the past has considered funding a scientist to handle state wildlife cases, but the program likely would have cost at least $150,000 a year without any proof of how well-used it would become, Markee says.

"This allows us to test-drive something like this to see how well it works," he says.

If the two-year study proves efficient, the OSP will ask for more money in its biennial budgets to continue the program, he says.

Big-game poaching cases are like mini-murder investigations, beginning at the crime scene and eventually reaching inside the gun closets and meat freezers of poachers.

"Usually, you start with a gut pile in the forest, or a carcass with the backstraps gone," Markee says.

A metal detector swung over the carcass and the scene will help investigators find a bullet, if possible. Troopers assess the likely location from where the shot was fired, and scan that area for shell casings or other evidence.

Over time, troopers identify possible suspects and try to put them on the scene, either through their weapon, eyewitnesses or other evidence, Markee says.

"Eventually, you'll get to the guy's house and you find some backstraps in the freezer," Markee says.

Without DNA testing, the investigation largely ends there, Markee says. Now, a sample of the backstraps can be sent to the Idaho lab, which could compare it to DNA collected at the scene. If there's a definitive match, it's case closed.

"The way wildlife cases go, it's about pieces and parts," he says. "How else are you going to get all those pieces without DNA?"

OSP Lt. Dave Cleary, who heads the department's Wildlife Enforcement Program, says troopers not only will not shy away from sharing information about the new program, they will publicize it so backwoods crooks will know the tables are getting tilted toward troopers these days.

Other groups contributing to the program include the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, Mule Deer Foundation, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Oregon Bow Hunters, Traditional Archers of Oregon, Benton Bowmen and the Safari Club International's Santiam Chapter.

"This is something all sportsmen's clubs can be proud of, something they can talk about being part of and having started," Markee says. "It's more than donating a piece of equipment, like a metal detector.

"Who's going to talk about a metal detector?" he says.

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